On John Adams

I recently finished reading John Adams by David McCullough.

Below are key excerpts from this book that I found to be particularly insightful:

In truth, he was extremely proud of his descent from “a line of virtuous, independent New England farmers.” That virtue and independence were among the highest of mortal attainments, John Adams never doubted. The New England farmer was his own man who owned his own land, a freeholder, and thus the equal of anyone.

And liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people who have a right from the frame of their nature to knowledge, as their great Creator who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings and a desire to know. But besides this they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible divine right to the most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean of the characters and conduct of their rulers.

If, by supporting the rights of mankind, and of invincible truth, I shall contribute to save from the agonies of death one unfortunate victim of tyranny, or of ignorance, equally fatal, his blessings and years of transport will be sufficient consolation to me for the contempt of all mankind.

The preservation of liberty depends upon the intellectual and moral character of the people. As long as knowledge and virtue are diffused generally among the body of a nation, it is impossible they should be enslaved.

Few Americans ever achieved so much of such value and consequence to their country in so little time. Above all, with his sense of urgency anc unrelenting drive, Adams made the Declaration of Independence happen when it did. Had it come later, the course of events could have gone very differently.

Years later, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Adams would describe the voyage on the Boston as symbolic of his whole life. The raging seas he has passed through, he seemed to be saying, were like the times they lived in, and he was at the mercy of the times no less than the seas. Possibly he saw, too, in the presence of John Quincy, how directly his determination to dare such seas affected his family and how much, with his devotion to the cause of America, he had put at risk beyond his own life. Besides, as he may also have seen, the voyage had demonstrated how better suited he was for action than for smooth sailing with little to do.

To Thomas Jefferson, Adams would one day write, “My friend, you and 1 have lived in serious times.” And of all the serious events of the exceedingly eventful eighteenth century, none compared to the arrival upon the world stage of the new, independent United States of America. Adams’s part in Holland and at Paris had been profound. As time would tell, the treaty that he, Franklin, and Jay had made was as advantageous to their country as any in history. It would be said they had won the greatest victory in the annals of American diplomacy.

The role of the executive Adams was emphatic. If there is one central truth to be collected from the history of all ages, it is this: that the people’s rights and liberties, and the democratical mixture in a constitution, can never be preserved without a Strong executive, or, in other words, without separating the executive from the legislative power. If the executive power, or any considerable part of it, is left in the hands of an aristocratical or democratical assembly, it will corrupt the legislature as necessarily as rust corrupts iron, or as arsenic poisons the human body; and when the legislature is corrupted, the people are undone.

The only way to keep us from setting up for ourselves is to disunite us,” young schoolmaster Adams had written in his percipient letter to Nathan Webb, and to Adams now, as to others, dissolution remained the greatest single threat to the American experiment. “The fate of this government,” he would write from New York to his former law clerk, William Tudor, “depends absolutely upon raising it above the state governments.’ The first line of the Constitution made the point, “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.’

‘o Adams the outcome was proof of how potent party spirit and party organization had become, and the most prominent was Burr’s campaign in New York. Washington, in his Farewell Address, had warned against disunion, permanent alliances with other nations, and “the baneful effects of the spirit of party.” Adams could rightly claim to have held to the ideals of union and neutrality, but his unrelenting independence—his desire to be a President above party—had cost him dearly.

In turbulent, dangerous times he had held to a remarkably steady course. He had shown that a strong defense and a desire for peace were not mutually exclusive, but compatible and greatly in the national interest.

In fundamental ways each proved consistently true to his nature they were in what they wrote as they had been through life. Jefferson was far more guarded and circumspect, better organized, dispassionate, more mannered, and refused ever to argue. Adams was warm, loquacious. more personal and opinionated, often humorous and willing to poke fun at himself. When Jefferson wrote of various self-appointed seers and mystics who had taken up his time as president, Adams claimed to have lad no problem with such people. “They all assumed the character of ambassadors extraordinary from the Almighty, but as I required miracles in proof of their credentials, and they did not perform any, I never gave public audience to any of them.”

I do not believe that Mr. Jefferson ever hated me. On the contrary, I believe he always liked me: but he detested Hamilton and my whole administration. Then he wished to be President of the United States, and I stood in his way. So he did everything that he could to pull me down. But if I should quarrel with him for that, I might quarrel with every man I have had anything to do with in life. This is human nature…. I forgive all my enemies and hope they may find mercy in Heaven. Mr. Jefferson and I have grown old and retired from public life. So we are upon our ancient terms of goodwill.

On a concluding note:

That John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had died on the same day. and that it was, of all days, the Fourth of July, could not be seen as a mere coincidence: it was a “visible and palpable” manifestation of “Divine favor,” wrote John Quincy in his diary that night, expressing what was felt and would be said again and again everywhere the news spread.

A highly recommended read in the areas of history and leadership.




The Emperor Of All Maladies

My initial intention was to read The Philadelphia Chromosome by Jessica Wapner, but as I was browsing for this book, another one grabbed my attention within the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” section at Amazon and that was The Emperor of All Maladies – A Biography of Cancer – by Siddharta Mukherjee – with its stellar reviews. So I decided to buy and read the latter and below is my summary/review of this must read “literary thriller”. I have subsequently learned that this book was awarded the Pulitzer prize in 2011 in the General Nonfiction category.

First a morbid statistical reminder about the fatality of cancer and its pervasiveness:

In 2010, about six hundred thousand Americans, and more than 7 million humans around the world, will die of cancer. In the United States, one in three women and one in two men will develop cancer during their lifetime. A quarter of all American deaths, and about 75 percent of all deaths worldwide, will be attributed to cancer. In some nations, cancer will surpass heart disease to become the most common cause of death.

The author then proceeds with outlining the premise of this book – a biography of cancer:

This book is a history of cancer. It is a chronicle of an ancient disease— a clandestine, “whispered-about” illness—that has metamorphosed into a lethal shape-shifting entity imbued with such penetrating metaphorical, medical, scientific, and political potency that cancer is often described as the defining plague of our generation. This book is a “biography” in the truest sense of the word—an attempt to enter the mind of this immortal illness, to understand its personality, to demystify its behavior. But my ultimate aim is to raise a question beyond biography: Is cancer’s end conceivable in the future? Is it possible to eradicate this disease from our bodies and societies forever?…Two characters stand at the epicenter of this story—both contemporaries, both idealists, both children of the boom in postwar science and technology in America, and both caught in the swirl of a hypnotic, obsessive quest to launch a national “War on Cancer.” The first is Sidney Farber, the father of modern chemotherapy, who accidentally discovers a powerful anti-cancer chemical in a vitamin analogue and begins to dream of a universal cure for cancer. The second is Mary Lasker, the Manhattan socialite of legendary social and political energy, who joins Farber in his decades-long journey But Lasker and Farber only exemplify the grit, imagination, inventiveness, and optimism of generations of men and women who have waged a battle against cancer for four thousand years. In a sense, this is a military history—one in which the adversary is formless, timeless, and pervasive. Here, too, there are victories and losses, campaigns upon campaigns, heroes and hubris, survival and resilience—and inevitably, the wounded, the condemned, the forgotten, the dead. In the end, cancer truly emerges, as a nineteenth-century surgeon once wrote in a books frontispiece, as “the emperor of all maladies, the king of terrors.’

So what exactly is cancer?

Roiling underneath these medical, cultural, and metaphorical interceptions of cancer over the centuries was the biological understanding of the illness—an understanding that had morphed, often radically, from decade to decade. Cancer, we now know, is a disease caused by the uncontrolled growth of a single cell. This growth is unleashed by mutations—changes in DNA that specifically affect genes that incite unlimited cell growth. In a normal cell, powerful genetic circuits regulate cell division and cell death. In a cancer cell, these circuits have been broken, unleashing a cell that cannot stop growing. That this seemingly simple mechanism—cell growth without barriers—can lie at the heart of this grotesque and multifaceted illness is a testament to the unfathomable power of cell growth. Cell division allows us as organisms to grow, to adapt, to recover, to repair—to live. And distorted and unleashed, it allows cancer cells to grow, to flourish, to adapt, to recover, and to repair—to live at the cost of our living. Cancer cells grow faster, adapt better. They are more perfect versions of ourselves. The secret to battling cancer, then, is to find means to prevent these mutations from occurring in susceptible cells, or to find means to eliminate the mutated cells without compromising normal growth.

Following the post-war medical progress man-kind presumed that all illnesses could be cured – not so:

The sweeping victories of postwar medicine illustrated the potent and transformative capacity of science and technology in American life. Hospitals proliferated—between 1945 and 1960, nearly one thousand new hospitals were launched nationwide; between 1935 and 1952, the number of patients admitted more than doubled from 7 million to 17 million per year. And with the rise in medical care came the concomitant expectation of medical cure. As one student observed, “When a doctor has to tell a patient that there is no specific remedy for his condition, [the patient] is apt to feel affronted, or to wonder whether the doctor is keeping abreast of the times.”

Farber, is the father of chemotherapy:

Farber’s paper, published on June 3, 1948, was seven pages long, jampacked with tables, figures, microscope photographs, laboratory values, and blood counts. Its language was starched, formal, detached, and scientific…The paper was received, as one scientist recalls, “with skepticism, disbelief, and outrage.”…In the summer of 1948, when one of Farber’s assistants performed a bone marrow biopsy on a leukemic child after treatment with aminopterin, the assistant could not believe the results. “The bone marrow looked so normal,” he wrote, “that one could dream of a cure.” And so Farber did dream. He dreamed of malignant cells being killed by Specific anticancer drugs, and of normal cells regenerating and reclaiming their physiological spaces; of a whole gamut of such systemic antagonists to decimate malignant cells; of curing leukemia with chemicals, then applying his experience with chemicals and leukemia to more common cancers. He was throwing down a gauntlet for cancer medicine. It was then up to an entire generation of doctors and scientists to pick it up.

A reminder however of why treating cancer is particularly difficult – it evolves:

But cancer is not simply a clonal disease; it is a clonally evolving disease. If growth occurred without evolution, cancer cells would not be imbued with their potent capacity to invade, survive, and metastasize. Every generation of cancer cells creates a small number of cells that is genetically different from its parents. When a chemotherapeutic drug or the immune system attacks cancer, mutant clones that can resist the attack grow out. The fittest cancer cell survives. This mirthless, relentless cycle of mutation, selection, and overgrowth generates cells that are more and more adapted to survival and growth. In some cases, the mutations speed up the acquisition of other mutations The genetic instability, like a perfect madness, only provides more impetus to generate mutant clones. Cancer thus exploits the fundamental logic of evolution unlike any other illness. If we, as a species, are the ultimate product of Darwinian selection, then so, too, is this incredible disease that lurks inside us.

Is cancer a new disease? Why does it seem to occur more now than it did in the past?

The most striking finding, though, is not that cancer existed in the distant past, but that it was fleetingly rare. When I asked Aufderheide about this he laughed. “The early history of cancer,” he said, “is that there is very little early history of cancer.”…There are several reasons behind this absence. Cancer is an age-related disease—sometimes exponentially so…Our capacity to detect cancer earlier and earlier, and to attribute deaths accurately to it, has also dramatically increased in the last century…Finally changes in the structure of modern life have radically shifted the spectrum of cancers—increasing the incidence of some, decreasing the incidence of others.

How radiation therapy came to be:

It would take biologists decades to fully decipher the mechanism that lay behind these effects, but the spectrum of damaged tissues—skin, lips. blood, gums, and nails—already provided an important clue: radium was attacking DNA. DNA is an inert molecule, exhaustively resistant to most chemical reactions, for its job is to maintain the stability of genetic information. But X-rays can shatter strands of DNA or generate toxic chemicals that corrode DNA. Cells respond to this damage by dying or, more often, by ceasing to divide. X-rays thus preferentially kill the most rapidly proliferating cells in the body, cells in the skin, nails, gums, and blood. This ability of X-rays to selectively kill rapidly dividing cells did not go unnoticed—especially by cancer researchers. In 1896, barely a year after Rontgen had discovered his X-rays, a twenty-one-year-old Chicago medical student, Emil Grubbe. had the inspired notion of using X-rays to treat cancer…Radiation therapy catapulted cancer medicine into its atomic age—an age replete with both promise and peril. Certainly, the vocabulary, the images, and the metaphors bore the potent symbolism of atomic power unleashed on cancer.

A key component of the war against cancer was funding for research – how was that to be unlocked?

But to measure the genius of the Jimmy campaign in dollars and cents is to miss its point. For Farber, the Jimmy Fund campaign was an early experiment—the building of another model. The campaign against cancer, Farber learned, was much like a political campaign: it needed icons, mascots, images, slogans—the strategies of advertising as much as the tools of science. For any illness to rise to political prominence, it needed to be marketed, just as a political campaign needed marketing. A disease needed to be transformed politically before it could be transformed scientifically. If Farber’s antifolates were his first discovery in oncology, then this critical truth was his second. It set off a seismic transformation in his career that would far outstrip his transformation from a pathologist to a leukemia doctor. This second transformation—from a clinician into an advocate for cancer research—reflected the transformation of cancer itself. The emergence of cancer from its basement into the glaring light of publicity would change the trajectory of this story. It is a metamorphosis that he’s at the heart of this book.

This is where Mary Lasker played an instrumental role:

“If a toothpaste … deserved advertising at the rate of two or three or four million dollars a year,” Mary Lasker reasoned, “then research against diseases maiming and crippling people in the United States and in the rest of the world deserved hundreds of millions of dollars.” Within just a few years, she transformed, as BusinessWeek magazine once put it, into “the fairy godmother of medical research.”…To Farber’s evangelistic tambourine, Lasker added her own drumbeats of enthusiasm. She spoke and wrote passionately and confidently about her cause, emphasizing her points with quotes and questions. Back in New York, she employed a retinue of assistants to scour newspapers and magazines and clip out articles containing even a passing reference to cancer— all of which she read, annotated on the margins with questions in small, precise script, and distributed to the other Laskerites every week.

While it was important from a campaigning perspective to have one enemy cancer, the reality is cancer was of many types and forms (and thus each required a different cure):

But naive or not, it was this lumping—this emphatic, unshakable faith in the underlying singularity of cancer more than its pluralities—that galvanized the Laskerites in the 1960s. Oncology was on a quest for cohesive truths—a “universal cure,” as Farber put it in 1962. And if the oncologists of the 1960s imagined a common cure for all forms of cancer, it was because they imagined a common disease called cancer. Curing one form, the belief ran, would inevitably Iead to the cure, of another, and so forth like a chain reaction, until the whole malignant edifice had crumbled like a set of dominoes. That assumption—that a monolithic hammer would eventually demolish a monolithic disease—surcharged physicians, scientists, and cancer lobbyists with vitality and energy. For the Laskerites, it was an organizing principle, a matter of faith, the only certain beacon toward which they all gravitated. Indeed, the Political consolidation of cancer that the Laskerites sought in Washington (a single institute, a single source of funds, led by a single physician or scientist) relied on a deeper notion of a medical consolidation of cancer into a single disease, a monolith, a single, central narrative. Without this grand, embracing narrative, neither Mary Lasker nor Sidney Farber could have envisioned a systematic, targeted war.

A key element of the progress of the battle against cancer was defining how that progress was to be measured:

The measurement of illness, Breslow was arguing, is an inherently subjective activity: it inevitably ends up being a measure of ourselves. Objective decisions come to rest on normative ones. Cairns or Bailar could tell us how many absolute lives were being saved or lost by cancer therapeutics. But to decide whether the investment in cancer research was “worth it,” one needed to start by questioning the notion of “worth” itself: was the life extension of a five-year-old “worth” more than the life extension of a sixty-year-old? Even Bailar and Smiths “most fundamental measure of clinical outcome”—death—was far from fundamental. Death (or at least the social meaning of death) could be counted and recounted with other gauges, often resulting in vastly different conclusions. The appraisal of diseases depends, Breslow argued, on our self-appraisal. Society and illness often encounter each other in parallel mirrors, each holding up a Rorschach test for the other.

One cannot talk about cancer and not mention smoking and the impact the tobacco industry has had on smokers developing lung cancer:

Yet the real legacy of the Cipollone case had little to do with legal victories or losses. Lampooned in court as a weak-willed, ill-informed, and dim-witted addict unaware of the “obvious” dangers of tobacco, Rose Cipollone nonetheless turned into a heroic icon of a cancer victim battling her disease—even from her grave…Yet, old sins have long shadows, and carcinogenic sins especially so. The lag time between tobacco exposure and lung cancer is nearly three decades, and the lung cancer epidemic in America will have an afterlife long after smoking incidence has dropped. Among men, the age-adjusted incidence of lung adenocarcinoma, having peaked at 102 per 100,000 in 1984, dropped to 77 in 2002. Among women, though, the epidemic still runs unabated. The stratospheric rise of smoking among women in Rose Cipollone’s generation is still playing itself out in the killing fields of lung cancer…Yet despite the evident seriousness of this addiction and its long-term consequences, tobacco consumption continues relatively unfettered even today Smoking rates, having plateaued for decades, have begun to rise again in certain demographic pockets, and lackluster antismoking campaigns have lost their grip on public imagination. The disjunction between the threat and the response is widening. It remains an astonishing, disturbing fact that in America—a nation where nearly every new drug is subjected to rigorous scrutiny as a potential carcinogen, and even the bare hint of a substances link to cancer ignites a firestorm of public hysteria and media anxiety—one of the most potent and common carcinogens known to humans can be freely bought and sold at every corner store for a few dollars.

A reminder about the realities of scientific research:

Science is often described as an iterative and cumulative process, a puzzle solved piece by piece, with each piece contributing a few hazy pixels of a much larger picture. But the arrival of a truly powerful new theory in science often feels far from iterative. Rather than explain one observation or phenomenon in a single, pixelated step, an entire field of observations suddenly seems to crystallize into a perfect whole. The effect is almost like watching a puzzle solve itself. Varmus and Bishops experiments had precisely such a crystalizing, zippering effect on cancer genetics. The crucial implication of the Varmus and Bishop experiment was that a precursor of a cancer-causing gene— the “proto-oncogene,” as Bishop and Varmus called it—was a normal cellular gene. Mutations induced by chemicals or X-rays caused cancer not by “inserting” foreign genes into cells, but by activating such endogenous proto-oncogenes.

And also, the fact that we are surrounded by an evolving list of potential carcinogens:

The landscape of carcinogens is not static either. We are chemical apes: laving discovered the capacity to extract, purify, and react molecules to produce new and wondrous molecules, we have begun to spin a new chemical universe around ourselves. Our bodies, our cells, our genes are thus being immersed and reimmersed in a changing flux of molecules—pesticides, pharmaceutical drugs, plastics, cosmetics, estrogens, food products, hormones, even novel forms of physical impulses, such as radiation and magnetism. Some of these, inevitably, will be carcinogenic. We cannot wish this world away; our task, then, is to sift through it vigilantly to discriminate bona fide carcinogens from innocent and useful bystanders.

The future might not bring a cure that eradicates cancer, but treatments that prolong the life of those affected:

Part of the unpredictability about the trajectory of cancer in the future is that we do not know the biological basis for this heterogeneity. We cannot yet fathom, for instance, what makes pancreatic cancer or gallbladder cancer so markedly different from CML or Atossas breast cancer. What is certain, however, is that even the knowledge of cancer’s biology is unlikely to eradicate cancer fully from our lives. As Doll suggests, and as Atossa epitomizes, we might as well focus on prolonging life rather than eliminating death. This War on Cancer may best be “won” by redefining victory.

On a concluding note:

Germaine seemed, that evening, to have captured something essential about our struggle against cancer: that, to keep pace with this malady, you needed to keep inventing and reinventing, learning and unlearning strategies. Germaine fought cancer obsessively, cannily, desperately, fiercely, madly, brilliantly, and zealously—as if channeling all the fierce, inventive energy of generations of men and women who had fought cancer in the past and would fight it in the future. Her quest for a cure had taken her on a strange and limitless journey, through Internet blogs and teaching hospitals, chemotherapy and clinical trials halfway across the country, through a landscape more desolate, desperate, and disquieting than she had ever imagined. She had deployed every morsel of energy to the quest, mobilizing and remobilizing the last dregs of her courage, summoning her will and wit and imagination, until, that final evening, she had stared into the vault of her resourcefulness and resilience and found it empty. In that haunted last night, hanging on to her life by no more than a tenuous thread, summoning all her strength and dignity as she wheeled herself to the privacy of her bathroom, it was as if she had encapsulated the essence of a four-thousand-year-old war.

A highly recommended read, about a subject that unfortunately touches most of us whether directly or indirectly. I dedicate this post to my grandmother, Aida, who passed away from cancer in 2000.

Titan – The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

The name Rockefeller is ingrained within both American History and Business, but why so? This is the question that set me on the quest to read the National Bestseller, Titan – The Life Of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow.

Below are key highlights from this masterpiece that I wanted to share.

John D. Rockefeller’s began displaying and developing his business acumen at a young age:

Though only dimly aware of such distant developments, John D. Rockefeller already seemed a perfect specimen of homo economicus. Even as a boy, he bought candy by the pound, divided it into small portions, then sold it at a tidy profit to his siblings. By age seven, encouraged by his mother, he was dropping gold, silver, and copper coins that he earned into a blue china bowl on the mantel. John’s first business coup came at age seven when he shadowed a turkey hen as it waddled off into the woods, raided its nest, and raised the chicks for sale. To spur his enterprise, Eliza gave him milk curds to feed the turkeys, and the next year he raised an even larger brood. As an old man. Rockefeller said, “To this day, I enjoy the sight of a flock of turkeys, and never miss an opportunity of studying them.”

The same was also true for his attachment to his religious beliefs:

John D. Rockefeller was drawn to the church, not as some nagging duty or obligation but as something deeply refreshing to the soul. The Baptist church of his boyhood provides many clues to the secrets of his character. As a young man. he was raised on a steady diet of maxims, grounded in evangelical Protestantism, that guided his conduct. Many of his puritanical attitudes, which may seem antiquated to a later generation, were merely the religious commonplaces of his boyhood. Indeed, the saga of his monumental business feats is inseparable from the fire-and-brimstone atmosphere that engulfed upstate New York in his childhood.

These two elements formed the two pillars of his life:

He possessed a sense of calling in both religion and business, with Christianity and capitalism forming the twin pillars of his life…When challenges to orthodoxy arose in later decades, he stuck by the spiritual certainties of his boyhood…The church gave Rockefeller the community of friends he craved and the respect and affection he needed.

The role he had to play within his family, tough him responsibility:

Of course, this boyhood responsibility took its toll on John D., who experienced little of the spontaneous joy or levity of youth. Growing up as a miniature adult, burdened with duties. He developed an exaggerated sense of responsibility that would be evident throughout his life. He learned to see himself as a reluctant savior, taking charge of troubled situations that needed to be remedied.

On his entry to the Oil sector:

Tramping the banks. Rockefeller beheld the satanic new world bequeathed by the oil boom, an idyllic valley blackened with derricks and tanks, engine houses and ramshackle huts, thickly crowded together in a crazy-quilt pattern…Rockefeller represented the second, more rational stage of capitalist development, when the colorful daredevils and pioneering speculators give way, as Max Weber wrote, to the “men who had grown up in the hard school of life. calculating and daring at the same time, above all temperate and reliable, shrewd and completely devoted to their business, with strictly bourgeois opinions and principles.”

One of the keys to his business success was that he kept cash on hand, and allies in the banking sectors – which were essential particularly during the times of crisis:

It is impossible to comprehend Rockefeller’s breathtaking ascent without realizing that he always moved into battle backed by abundant cash. Whether riding out downturns or coasting on booms, he kept plentiful reserves and won many bidding contests simply because his war chest was deeper…To have orchestrated such a rapid campaign required a long relationship of trust with the banks.

Rockefeller believed in the importance of balanced work ethic:

Rockefeller bridled at the notion that he was a business-obsessed drudge, a slave to the office. “I know of nothing more despicable and pathetic than a man who devotes all the waking hours of the day to making money for money’s sake,” he recorded in his memoirs. He worked at a more leisurely pace than many other executives, napping daily after lunch and often dozing in a lounge chair after dinner. To explain his extraordinary longevity he later said, doubtless overstating the matter, “I’m here because I shirked: did less work, lived more in the open air, enjoyed the open air, sunshine and exercise.”

On his skillful negotiation skills:

One of Rockefeller’s strengths in bargaining situations was that he figured out what he wanted and what the other party wanted and then crafted mutually advantageous terms. Instead of ruining the railroads, Rockefeller tried to help them prosper, albeit in a way that fortified his own position.

One of his shortcomings was that he remained silent in the face of criticism, which haunted him particularly during the public relation battles he fought:

Only in the twilight of life did Rockefeller realize how poorly his taciturnity had served him in business battles. This was especially true during the SIC furor, which evolved into a political and public-relations battle. By remaining silent in the face of criticism, he thought he would seem confident and secure in his integrity—in fact, he seemed guilty and arrogantly evasive. Throughout his career. Rockefeller endured abuse with so much equanimity that Flagler once shook his head and said, “John, you have a hide like a rhinoceros! “

On his view of capitalism, and how he linked it to his religious beliefs:

In a critical distinction, he viewed competitive capitalism—and not capitalism per se—as producing a vulgar materialism and rapacious business practices that dissolved the bonds of human brotherhood. In a state of ungoverned competition, selfish individuals tried to maximize their profits and thereby impoverished the entire industry What the American economy needed instead were new cooperative forms (trusts, pools, monopolies) that would restrain grasping individuals for the general good. Rockefeller thus tried to reconcile trusts with Christianity, claiming that cooperation would end the egotism and materialism abhorrent to Christian values. It was an ingenious rationalization. While religion did not lead him to the concept of trusts, it did enable him to invest his vision of cooperation with a powerful moral imperative.

On his leadership skills and beliefs:

Even as a young man, Rockefeller was extremely composed in a crisis. In this respect, he was a natural leader: The more agitated others became, the calmer he grew.

Far more than a technocrat, Rockefeller was an inspirational leader who exerted a magnetic power over workers and especially prized executives with social skills.

Few outsiders knew that one of Rockefeller’s greatest talents was to manage and motivate his diverse associates. As he said, “It is chiefly to my confidence in men and my ability to inspire their confidence in me that I owe my success in life.” He liked to note that Napoleon could not have succeeded without his marshals. Free of an autocratic temperament. Rockefeller was quick to delegate authority and presided lightly, genially, over his empire, exerting his will in unseen ways. At meetings. Rockefeller had a negative capability: The quieter he was, the more forceful his presence seemed, and he played on his mystique the resident genius immune to petty concerns.

Rockefeller placed a premium on internal harmony and tried to reconcile his contending chieftains. A laconic man, he liked to canvass everyone’s opinion before expressing his own and then often crafted a compromise to maintain cohesion. He was always careful to couch his decisions as suggestions or questions.

On philanthropy:

Yet by the 1880s, Rockefeller had already formulated certain core principles for his bequests many of them stemming from beliefs he had long entertained as a businessman. For instance, like other industrialists he worried that charity fostered dependence and pauperized recipients…The most important concept Rockefeller bequeathed to philanthropy was that of wholesale giving, as opposed to small, scattershot contributions…Another cardinal principle of Rockefeller philanthropy was to rely upon expert opinion.

On Standard Oils’, the set of companies he started:

In a sense, John D. Rockefeller simplified life for the authors of antitrust legislation. His career began in the infancy of the industrial boom, when the economy was still raw and unregulated. Since the rules of the game had not yet been encoded into law, Rockefeller and his fellow industrialists had forged them in the heat of combat. With his customary thoroughness, Rockefeller had devised an encyclopedic stock of anti-competitive weapons. Since he had figured out every conceivable way to restrain trade, rig markets, and suppress competition, all reform-minded legislators had to do was study his career to draw up a comprehensive antitrust agenda.

Standard Oil had taught the American public an important but paradoxical lesson: Free markets, if left completely to their own devices, can wind up terribly unfree. Competitive capitalism did not exist in a state of nature but had to be defined or restrained by law. Unfettered markets tended frequently toward monopoly or, at least, toward unhealthy levels of concentration, and government sometimes needed to intervene to ensure the full benefits of competition. This was particularly true in the early stages of industrial development. This notion is now so deeply embedded in our laws that it has become all but invisible to us. replaced by secondary debates over the precise nature or extent of antitrust enforcement.

If Tarbell gave an oversimplified account of Standard Oil’s rise, her indictment was perhaps the more forceful for it. In the trust’s collusion with the railroads, the intricate system of rebates and drawbacks, she found her smoking gun, the irrefutable proof that Rockefeller’s empire was built by devious means. She was at pains to refute Rockefeller’s defense that everybody did it. “Everybody did not do it,” she protested indignantly “In the nature of the offense everybody could not do it. The strong wrested from the railroads the privilege of preying upon the weak, and the railroads never dared give the privilege save under the promise of secrecy.”

The following two excerpts summarize Rockefeller’s life and contributions:

The loftiest encomium to Rockefeller’s impact in this field came from Winston Churchill, who wrote shortly before Rockefeller’s death: When history passes its final verdict on John D. Rockefeller, it may well be that his endowment of research will be recognized as a milestone in the progress of the race. For the first time, science was given its head: longer term experiment on a large scale has been made practicable, and those who undertake it are freed from the shadow of financial disaster. Science today owes as much to the rich men of generosity and discernment as the art of the Renaissance owes to the patronage of Popes and Princes. Of these rich men, John D. Rockefeller is the supreme type.

The fiercest robber baron had turned out to be the foremost philanthropist Rockefeller accelerated the shift from the personal, ad-hoc charity that had traditionally been the province of the rich to something both more powerful and more impersonal. He established the promotion of knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, as a task no less important than giving alms to the poor or building schools, hospitals, and museums. He showed the value of expert opinion, thorough planning, and competent administration in nonprofit work, setting a benchmark for professionalism in the emerging foundation field. By the time Rockefeller died, in fact, so much good had unexpectedly flowered from so much evil that God might even have greeted him on the other side, as the titan had so confidently expected all along.

On a concluding note:

Although Junior moved into Kykuit after Rockefeller’s death, he knew that his father was inimitable, and so he decided to retain the Jr. after his name. As he was often heard to say in later years, “There was only one John D. Rockefeller.”

Attorney Samuel Untermver issued this paean to the elusive witness he had interrogated: “Next to our beloved President, he was our country’s biggest citizen. It was he who visualized as did no other man the use to which great wealth could wisely be put. Because of him the world is a better place in which to live. Blessed be the memory of World Citizen No. 1.”

After reading this book, I can definitely say that the question I had has been answered. A highly recommended read from a historical, humanitarian and business perspectives. If you are looking to learn more about the Oil/Energy side of the story, I strongly recommend reading The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power by Daniel Yergin.

On Profiles In Courage

I recently read Profiles In Courage by John F. Kennedy.

The central theme of the book is: “This is a book about that most admirable of human virtues -courage. “Grace under pressure,” Ernest Hemingway defined It. And these are the stories of the pressures experienced by eight United States Senators and the grace with which they endured them—the risks to their careers, the unpopularity of their courses, the defamation of their characters, and sometimes, but sadly only sometimes, the vindication of their reputations and their principles. A nation which has forgotten the quality of courage which in the past has been brought to public life is not as likely to insist upon or reward that quality in its chosen leaders today —and in fact we have forgotten.”

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

1- “I am not so sure, after nearly ten years of living and working in the midst of “successful democratic politicians,” that they are all insecure and intimidated men.” I am convinced that the complication of public business and the competition for the public’s attention have obscured innumerable acts of political courage—large and small—performed almost daily in the Senate Chamber. I am convinced that the decline— if there has been a decline—has been less in the Senate than he public’s appreciation of the art of politics, of the nature of the Senate as a legislative chamber. And, finally I am convinced that we have criticized those who have followed the crowd—and at the same time criticized those who have defied it—because we have not fully understood the responsibility of a Senator to his constituents or recognized the difficulty facing a politician conscientiously desiring, in Webster’s words, “to push [his] skiff from the shore alone” into a hostile and turbulent sea. Perhaps if the American people more fully comprehended the terrible pressures which discourage acts of political courage, which drive a Senator to abandon or subdue his conscience, then they might be less critical of those who take the easier road—and more appreciative of those still able to follow the path of courage.”

2- “Where else, in a non-totalitarian country, but in the political profession is the individual expected to sacrifice all— including his own career—for the national good? In private life, as in industry, we expect the individual to advance his own enlightened self-interest—within the limitations of the law—in order to achieve over-all progress. But in public life we expect individuals to sacrifice t their private interests t( permit the national good to progress. In no other occupation but politics is it expected that a man will sacrifice honors, prestige and his chosen career on a single issue.”

3- “Fortunately or unfortunately, few follow that urge—but the provocation is there—not only from unreasonable letters and impossible requests, but also from hopelessly inconsistent demands and endlessly unsatisfied grievances.”

4- “Great crises produce great men, and great deeds of courage. This country has known no greater crisis than that which culminated in the fratricidal war between North and South in 1861. Thus, without intending to slight other periods of American history, no work of this nature could overlook three acts of outstanding political courage—of vital importance to the eventual maintenance of the Union—which occurred in the fateful decade before the Civil War. In two cases—involving Senators Sam Houston of Texas and Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, both of whom had enjoyed political dominion in their states for many years— defeat was their reward. In the third—that involving Daniel Webster of Massachusetts—even death, which came within two years of his great decision, did not halt the calumnies heaped upon him by his enemies who had sadly embittered his last days.”

5- “Webster had written his own epitaph: I shall stand by the Union … with absolute disregard of personal consequences. What are personal consequences … in comparison with the good or evil which may befall a great country in a crisis like this? … Let the consequences be what they will, I am careless. No man can suffer too much, and no man can fall too soon, if he suffer or if he fall in defense of the liberties and Constitution of his country.”

6- “Lamar: If [a Senator] allows himself to be governed by the opinions of his friends at home, however devoted he may be to them or they to him, he throws away all die rich results of a previous preparation and study, and simply becomes a commonplace exponent of those popular sentiments which may change in a few days. . . . Such a course will dwarf any man’s statesmanship and his vote would be simply considered as an echo of current opinion, not the result of mature deliberations.”

7- “Lamar: The liberty of this country and its great interests will never be secure if its public men become mere menials to do the biddings of their constituents instead of being representatives in the true sense of the word, looking to the lasting prosperity and future interests of the whole country.”

8- “George Norris: It happens very often that one tries to do something and fails. He feels discouraged, and yet he may discover years afterward that the very effort he made was the reason why somebody else took it up and succeeded. I really believe that whatever use I have been to progressive civilization has been accomplished in the things I failed to do rather than in the things I actually did do.”

9- “Columnist: The fact that thousands disagree with him, and that it is politically embarrassing to other Republicans, probably did not bother Taft at all. He has for years been accustomed to making up his mind, regardless of whether it hurts him or anyone else. Taft surely must have known that his remarks would be twisted and misconstrued and that his timing would raise the devil in the current campaign. But it is characteristic of him that he went ahead anyway.”

10- “This has been a book about courage and politics. Politics furnished the situations, courage provided the theme. Courage, the universal virtue, is comprehended by us all—but these portraits of courage do not dispel the mysteries of politics. For not a single one of the men whose stories appear in the preceding pages offers a simple, clear-cut picture of motivation and accomplishment. In each of them complexities, inconsistencies and doubts arise to plague us. However detailed may have been our study of his life, each man remains something of an enigma. He However clear the effect of his courage, the cause is shadowed by a veil which cannot be torn away. We may confidently state the reasons why—yet something always seems to elude us. We think we hold die answer in our hands—^yet somehow it slips through our fingers.”

11- “Of course, the acts of courage described in this book: would be more inspiring and would shine more with the tradition. luster of hero-worship if we assumed that each man forgot wholly about himself in his dedication to higher principles. But it may be that President John Adams, surely as disinterested as well as wise a public servant as we ever had, came much nearer to the truth when he wrote in his Defense of ^the Constitutions of the United States: “It is not true, in fact, that any people ever existed who love the public better than themselves.””

12- “John C. Calhoun: I never know what South Carolina thinks of a measure. I never consult her. I act to the best of my judgment and according to my conscience. If she approves, well a and good. If she does not and wishes anyone to take my place, I am ready to vacate. We are even.”

13- “These stories are the stories of such a democracy. Indeed, there would be no such stories had this nation not,t maintained its heritage of free speech and dissent, had it not fostered honest conflicts of opinion, had it not encouraged tolerance for unpopular views. Cynics may point to our inability to provide a happy ending for each chapter. But I am certain that these stories will not be looked upon as warnings to beware of being courageous. For the continued political success of many of those who withstood the pressures of public opinion, and the ultimate vindication of the rest, enables us to maintain our faith in the long-run judgment of the people.”


Omar Halabieh

Profiles In Courage